“Pink Flamingos” (season one, episode two; originally aired 4/1/2004)
“What do you mean ‘like me?’ There is no ‘like me.’ I’m not ‘like’ anything, and if I were it certainly wouldn’t be me. I don’t have a choice, I’m a puppet. The universe just sticks its hand up my butt and if I don’t dance people get hurt.”— Jaye Tyler, “Pink Flamingos”
If Gretchen Speck-Horowitz—the bubbly high-school classmate of Jaye’s who acts as an avatar of the everyday annoyances that plague her in “Wax Lion”—seemed familiar, that’s because she was supposed to be. Bryan Fuller has a long-standing fascination with adding connections between his various shows, casting the same actors in similar roles and adding throwaway references: The Happy Time Temp Agency from Dead Like Me was mentioned in the Pushing Daisies second season première; Dead Like Me star Ellen Muth popped up on an episode of Hannibal as yet another character named Georgia who had a strange relationship between life and death.
Muth was only the second Fuller alum to guest star on Hannibal, as Chelan Simmons appeared on the show’s second episode, “Amuse-Bouche,” as a near victim of that week’s serial killer. Even more jarring than her near-suffocation in a car trunk full of soil—at least to fans of Fuller’s work—she identified herself as Gretchen Speck, having dropped the hyphenated name following her divorce. This added only more fuel to the popular theory that all of Fuller’s shows are in fact set in the same universe, a theory that’s led me down a rabbit hole of speculation more than once. Imagine the crossover potential: What would Hannibal think of Ned’s pies? Does Chuck’s alive-again status qualify her for a reaper position? Would Will Graham and Emerson Cod be the greatest crime-solving duo in history?
These questions are nothing but speculation (even though the answer to the last one is clearly “yes”), but they still speak Fuller’s interest in randomly connected stories, a thread that runs through Wonderfalls even two episodes in. The second episode, “Pink Flamingos,” doesn’t provide the complete picture of what’s going on—whatever plan the muses have, if any, remains to be seen—but their nagging and cryptic directions are turning out to be far more wide-ranging than either Jaye or I gave them credit for in the early going. Now more numerous and taking on many new forms—boo for no glimpses of the smushed-face lion this week outside of the opening credits—the muses are contradicting themselves and forcing Jaye to contradict herself, and yet all triggering events in a fashion that makes a lot of people happy. (Well, except Jaye, but she makes an art form out of not being happy.)
The episode’s events kick off thanks to that most dreaded of young-adult rituals, the high-school reunion. Gretchen Speck-Horowitz returns to Wonderfalls, first to terrify Jaye by pretending to be her new boss and then to enlist Jaye’s help in planning their six-and-a-half year reunion. (“Can’t wait, save the date, Rooster class of ’98!”) Simmons plays Gretchen as not only the personification of everything Jaye hates—blonde, bubbly, and successful—but also the personification of every high-school classmate you’ve ever had who posts pictures of their happy life on Facebook while you’re struggling to make rent. And even more aggravating is the soundness of her logic for choosing Jaye, who boasted not a single extracurricular activity in school: “The class officers are all so busy with their careers and their families, so naturally I thought of you!”
Jaye is understandably disgusted at the prospect of helping with the event, as is Mahandra, who still remembers a Gretchen-orchestrated act of hair sabotage seven years prior that gave her a massive Afro for class pictures—one that promptly fell out afterwards. But Jaye’s in no position to resist, as the last time she ignored the muses—their latest form a flock of pink flamingos outside her parents’ house—it led to her inadvertently backing over her father with her car and sending him to the hospital with a broken foot. Here we see the first sign that the muses may be more than just voices in her head, as ignoring their directives leads to unintended consequence beyond sleepless nights full of showtunes. It’s an agony far more satisfying than her confusion in “Wax Lion,” as these aren’t just random messages, this is forcing her to add goals to a life where she was perfectly content to live without.
And the pursuit of these goals also lets us see how Wonderfalls has expanded since the pilot. Like Jaye’s life, the show remains a work in progress, and the second episode sees the show moving from its ambitious and charming pilot to fit the show into a weekly structure—a rocky transition for many shows, particularly given the difference between budgets. Interestingly, the show’s second episode is a more expansive one, getting out in the world at the same time it’s pushing Jaye to do the same. I expected the show to be centered around a knickknack of the week giving Jaye advice and adventures triggered by quarters in the Maid of the Mist fountain, but “Pink Flamingos” spends less than three minutes in the Wonderfalls gift shop. Instead, the muses turn out to be all around Jaye in her daily life, with the flamingos joined by a fish mounted on the wall of The Barrel and Gretchen’s hair clip bearing the image of a cartoon rooster. And in addition to being more frequent, their cryptic instructions have become more direct, outright telling Jaye to get off her ass, help Gretchen with the event, and then destroy her outright.
This is an adjustment that forces Jaye—and by extension the viewer—to alter the questions they ask. In “Wax Lion” it was about interpretation, here it’s about intent, whether or not the muses are united and whether or not they’re testing Jaye by having her make the right choice. It’s a test made all the harder by the fact that Gretchen’s ultra-cheerful attitude is exposed as a front, her marriage not nearly as happy as couples cards and photo albums would lead you to believe. Wonderfalls likes to point out repeatedly that Jaye hasn’t committed to a single plan in her life—as Karen points out by dismissing the idea that she could premeditate patricide—but it doesn’t try to glorify the alternative, as Gretchen’s committed so heavily to her list of criteria that’s the only thing she loves. And there’s the first lesson of growing up Jaye gets, learning that high school villains weren’t nearly as bad as memory leads you to believe, a realization triggered by Gretchen’s breakdown. (Also one of the episode’s funniest scenes, as reassurance comes as naturally to Jaye as open-heart surgery. “I promised I wouldn’t do this in front of friends!” “We’re not your… it’s fine.” “What people must think of me.” “No one thinks of you! Badly.”)
So what’s the right decision? It isn’t any easier to make at the reunion (accompanied by the Dandy Warhols’ “We Used To Be Friends,” giving the whole affair a decided Veronica Mars vibe), largely because no one else is giving her good advice. It’s still Jaye’s show, but a lot of good character moments are doled out for the supporting characters: We learn that Karen has an eternal “in” with the popular girls, Mahandra’s more assertive than Jaye but still knows when to back off, and Eric’s grown as comfortable as an advice-giving bartender as he is counting the letters in peoples’ names. His advice to “defy the chicken” (despite not getting the poultry reference) leads Jaye to do what seems like the right thing and call Gretchen’s husband. But when the phone call is cut off by crashing noises, a horrified Jaye thinks another life has been ended by her inaction, and she embraces her role as disaster by hurling a Mai Tai on Gretchen’s dress with a deadpan “I destroy you.”
Or is it destruction? Jaye seems to be giving into the whims of fate, but everything she does seems to make things better, in the weirdest ways. Gretchen’s moment of despair leads to an encounter with a Marine ex-classmate who professes his love, and she rejects him immediately but it leads her to realize she’s not in love with her husband. Add that to all the other seemingly random things she’s done—running her father down, telling Eric’s cheating wife he was servicing her sexually, nearly getting Robert killed—and Jaye’s wound up being an unintentional bearer of good news. Gretchen’s heading off in triumph to a new life (albeit one where she’s almost a living mushroom garden, but a life nonetheless). Eric’s got fireworks popping behind his eyes. Robert’s met a truck driver who can give him the extended Orthodox family his current wife wouldn’t. Even breaking her father’s leg turned out to be the right thing as it exposed a blood clot, meaning he’s saved from a life-altering ailment. Every decision she’s made has triggered something important, even if she doesn’t realize her role as an agent of causality.
“Pink Flamingos” may not be as sharp creatively as “Wax Lion” was—an expected stumbling block as Fuller’s shows tend to take their time in finding their more functional weekly structure—but it’s an episode that proves Wonderfalls is going on the right path. And it’s a leisurely, random path to be on: Wonderfalls doesn’t want to provide quick and easy happiness for its characters—it’s a show that’s interested in the odd and random way things stack up on the way to the destination.
- Given the Fullerverse connection, I like to speculate this series ends with Jaye legally changing her name to Alana Bloom and going back to school for a psychology degree. Maybe Dr. Lecter can help her understand the voices she’s hearing, so long as the elk statue he beat a man to death with doesn’t start sharing its own opinions too.
- Corrections from last week: Thanks to my friend and colleague Myles McNutt for pointing out Wonderfalls is in fact set on the American side of Niagara Falls—I was misled by my knowledge that the show was shot in Canada, but the American currency (and the New York license plates this episode) are dead giveaways. Also thanks again to commenter You_promised for providing a link to the original pilot, which isn’t available on the DVD but is available on YouTube.
- It wasn’t in the pilot so I didn’t mention it at the time, but now seems like the right time to heap praise on Andrew Partridge’s truly wonderful theme song “I Wonder Why The Wonderfalls.” It perfectly fits the underlying optimism of the show—with the right hint of darkness to the lyrics—and it’s so damn catchy.
- Jaye’s life isn’t the only one that could use some direction, as Sharon’s new relationship with Beth is hampered by her unwillingness to come out to her parents. There are some great beats for Katie Finneran here as she stammers awkwardly about car pools in front of Karen, and then drugs her father in a Hitchcock-style series of scenes so the two can have some alone time—only introducing further awkwardness when Beth says she’s bisexual and Sharon, who’s never been with a man, can’t process it. The conversation is tabled by Darrin staggering downstairs half-asleep, but given the show’s fascination with cause and effect that can only be temporary.
- On that note, props to William Sadler, who is alongside Bryan Cranston in the ranks of middle-aged actors unafraid to appear in tighty-whities on national television.
- Best Caroline Dhavernas expression of the week: The wide eyes/scrunched-up face and the horrified whimper when the first flamingo comes to life.
- Jaye’s attitude to high school reunions mirrors my own: “I don’t miss any of those people yet, and I don’t think that’s a problem time can solve.”
- Great episode for Mahandra too, who proves as sarcastic as Jaye and much less likely to take anyone’s shit: “You may be the universe’s butt-puppet, but I’m its right-handed fist of fate.”
- Karen Tyler turns insulting reassurances into an art form: “She’s trapped in her perfect life and that’s not what I want for you.”
- “Say, did you know our basic cable comes with lesbian porn?” What, your dad never said that to you before breakfast?
Next week: Karma-karma-karma-karma “Karma Chameleon!” Jaye comes and goes, she comes and goes. (And a bad time to go given someone’s trying to steal her identity.)